Voting in the November general election was a real concern among North Dakota residents during the 1918 flu pandemic. Authorities estimated the state had 15,000 active cases on this date, which was the deadline for voter registration. One town in southwestern North Dakota reportedly had half of its 100 residents were sick with the flu or had already died from it.
There was talk of postponing the general election. The pandemic had already closed schools, churches and other places of public gatherings. It was a major election for North Dakota, coming when the populist Nonpartisan League was in control. Ten constitutional amendments were on the ballot, along with North Dakota’s congressional seats and statewide offices. Governor, state superintendent and a seat on North Dakota’s Supreme Court were the hottest races.
The flu was seen a barrier for the election. Expectations were for a turnout of 100,000 voters, about 20,000 less than 1916.
The results weren’t readily accepted by everyone. In Sargent County, two house candidates were sick at home at the time of the vote, but that wasn’t the problem. The race became controversial when the election board in the town of Forman counted ballots behind locked doors, acting on public health guidance to keep crowds away. The League-controlled House threw out the 125 Forman votes and seated the Leaguer incumbent, who would have been beaten by an Independent. Forman voters were outraged. They said the House had disenfranchised them. Attorney General Bill Langer even went to Forman the following spring to investigate, but found no evidence of election fraud.
Two Leaguer candidates for Stark County House seats challenged the ballots of six Belfield voters who, while sick with the flu, cast their votes from home. The House threw out the votes, but that didn’t change the outcome of the election. The flu also sickened state officials such as the speaker of the House, the attorney general and the outgoing and incoming lieutenant governors.
But the risk of flu didn’t keep crowds away from Governor Lynn Frazier’s inaugural address at the opening of the Legislature, which coincided with former President Theodore Roosevelt’s death from an embolism. The House chamber’s gallery was “packed to the limit of its standing room, while chairs for spectators occupied every available inch of space on the floor.” Not the best setting for social distancing.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 29. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 4. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 16. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 9. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 30. Page 4
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, April 10. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 18. Page 1
Grand Forks Herald. 1919, January 18. Page 1
Grand Forks Herald. 1919, February 8. Page 2
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1919, January 23. Page 7
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1919, January 23. Page 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, April 23. Page 4
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 6. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 27. Page 8